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I am now working as a postdoctoral researcher in Japan. I came to work at this institute when it received a big grant from government more than 2 years ago. My research budget is paid from a small part of that grant. I am affiliated with a lab run by my current advisor, but I do my own research topics and build my own experimental setup without support from the advisor.

This year I applied for my own funding and was lucky enough to get a small grant for young researchers. My advisor applied to the same grant (more senior category) but failed, and later I learned that he has not succeeded to get any grant up to now. Last week he asked me to use my budget for his projects, because "in this lab, we share the budget together", as he said.

I feel awkward because I don't want to share my budget with him, but if I deny the request, our relationship will be damaged. Has any of you experienced the same problem? Is my advisor a bad one? How should I deal with this?

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Can you spare the money? –  Raphael Jul 6 at 9:30
No, I cannot spare the money. He will take all and use it quickly. –  user18220 Jul 6 at 13:24

4 Answers 4

This is delicate issue, and I would advise you to proceed with utmost care. There are a number of ethical, legal, and practical issues to take into account.

First, the legal side - as Bill Barth already mentioned, it is not a given that you even can (easily and legally) move money from your grant to somebody else in your lab. In a nutshell, only the funding agency or the respective support department from your university can help you with this.

Second, in terms of ethical issues, the question arises whether you do in fact "share budget in this lab". In other terms, did the lab head also share his budget with you when you did not yet have a grant? Do think about this critically. In my experience, young independent researchers (myself included) tend to take the support we get from senior researchers for granted sometimes, while being rather protective about our own funding. From your description, it does sound like you yourself are being funded from money acquired by the lab head. In that sense, asking you to give back a small part of your grant to support his research is not necessarily unethical. Further, has he helped you with your grant application? If he has, sharing a bit of your grant with him may be the right thing to do (if even possible, see above).

Thirdly, in practical terms, the question arises whether it is worth for you to fight over this issue. This largely depends on how bad it can end for you if the lab head is really mad at you (in Japan I would assume the answer to this is "very", unfortunately) and how much funding money is concerned. This is another issue that you can really only decide for yourself, but (again), do proceed with caution. You should consider that you not only need to work with this guy day to day, but you may also need his support for your next career step. I have unfortunately seen a few young researchers taking a stand with their mentors "on principle" over relatively minor issues. This kind of thing tends to not go as well as people hope.

All things considered, you would do well to not let your successful grant application go to your head. It is certainly a very important milestone in you career, but don't get into a lone wolf mentality ("I'm so good, I don't need anybody to succeed!").

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I would add to this that it is frequently easy to put a To Be Determined (TBD) person on a grant and to then shift funds to them after the grant is awarded. However, one should be very careful about having them work on something other than he funded work using that money. So, if your advisor wants to support himself or another lab member with your money, that might be OK as long as there's room for a TBD person on the grant and that person works on things that relate to it. –  Bill Barth Jul 5 at 18:26
Excellent answer. I have a small start-up budget given to my name and never ask the lab head to use his budget. I myself wrote the grant proposal without any support from him. Therefore I think, in terms of ethical issues, it is not necessary to share my budget with him. In practical terms, this guy is powerful but really mad and hot-tempered. Few years ago, a young tenured-track faculty was fired mainly because he did not accept to share his budget with the lab head. –  user18220 Jul 6 at 13:33
+1 specific to japan, people can get very angry about this if the grant is general. The legal issue is probably more complicated in the region, in which even if it is not allowed in the grant, someone may still be well expected to share. –  user1938107 Jul 6 at 13:34
@user18220 Then I am afraid you know what your options are. Share, or be prepared to fight a fight that may well end badly. Not that I am saying you should definitely do the former, but, really, there is not much we can help you with here. –  xLeitix Jul 6 at 13:42
Excellent answer. I would add: if you do decide to share, don't just say "yes, I will help you buy this equipment". Agree on an exact amount of money, to prevent further claims. –  Moriarty Jul 6 at 19:55

I would suggest looking at the terms of your grant. You could get in a lot of trouble with the granting agency if you use the money for something other than what you wrote in your grant application. There's a little slop in the exact percentages of work that you do, but most agencies have rules requiring that you certify your effort on the project.

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Excellent answers from the other respondents.

One solution may be that some grants allow for administrative overhead or indirect costs. At some universities, this can be over 50% and literally keeps the lights on and the trash bins emptied.

You may want to see if you, the senior scholar, the university, and the grantor agree to divert some of the indirect costs to him.

(And yes, his behavior is inimical, at least as you describe it. Promise to yourself that you won't be that type of jerk to your own students and junior colleagues.)

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+1: this answer contains what I think is the last key point -- grants have substantial overhead. The philosophy of overhead is that you are using someone's facilities and resources, so some money should go to them so that they are happy rather than sad that your work is being done. As RoboKaren points out, in the US this is a highly non-negligible amount, and there is often some fungibility in where in the university these funds go. If the OP is working in his supervisor's lab, the supervisor has a reasonable claim to some of the overhead. How much is something to be negotiated. –  Pete L. Clark Jul 5 at 22:46
But the guiding principle should be that it really is the overhead that is being given: i.e., whatever funds have been earmarked for the research project proposed by the OP and then funded must actually be used for the OP's research project and not his superivsor's. Finally, this is a US-centric answer. I don't know how they do it in Japan... –  Pete L. Clark Jul 5 at 22:47

Do the right thing and ignore/stop the recursive career considerations of the other answerers. If he helped you, now you help him. If he was not helping you, then explain you cannot. If he was miserly, then be miserly. You are ultimately beholden to your own self.

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If only we could live in your world: one without nuance. –  Neo Jul 6 at 1:31
Your Tit-for-Tat strategy would be a good one if this were a Prisoner's Dilemma situation. But it isn't. If you like thinking in such a way, it might be a good exercise to identify the fundamental game theoretical differences between that situation and the OP's. Hints: (i) the matrix is not symmetric. (ii) the outcome in the situation in which the OP cooperates and his supervisor does not is probably not the worst possible one. –  Pete L. Clark Jul 6 at 1:42
The greater insight is to understand the dimension of conscience. Of what use is to dissect all the external angles when the poster will tear inside at the perceived injustice? Better to understand whether it is an injustice or not, and then act accordingly. –  user296844 Jul 6 at 13:35
@PeteL.Clark That's a nice way to put it. –  xLeitix Jul 6 at 14:00

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